By Jacob Montgomery (Texas)
Very loosely based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, this film follows Cecil Gaines, the black butler who served in the White House for 34 years at the height when the civil rights movement exploded.
Usually a good performance can carry a movie. But that is not the case here. While Forrest Whitaker is excellent as the titular character, and lots of the other actors do great or fine with their parts, the rest of the film surrounding the performances isn’t strong at all. The film is so heavy-handed it really feels like instead of accurately portraying what life was like for black people back then, it feels like they’re trying to get the message of racism is bad, which I assume most of the people watching this film already knew.
The film ultimately feels like we are watching snippets of lots of movies that were crammed together with little cohesion. I think the film was trying to make a more serious version of Forrest Gump, which completely misses the point of what made that film so popular in the first place. In Forrest Gump, the reason why the quick jumping around from historical event to historical event worked was because of the simple-mindedness of the character, he didn’t fully understand the significance of what was going on. You can’t say that about the character here.
Naturally, any film that spans over 40 years is going to have pacing issues, but they did a really bad job here. You often feel like just when a scene is getting good or interesting, they immediately jump to the next historical set piece. This disjointed structure doesn’t surprise me, seeing as how the film had 40 credited producers.
I’m also pretty shocked by the number of celebrities in this film. Usually having famous people play characters isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s usually the opposite, but here the plethora of famous people who have brief cameos playing real life famous people is really distracting. When I look at the presidents in the film, I didn’t see Eisenhower, I saw Robin Williams. I didn’t see Reagan, I saw Alan Rickman. That is a really bad sign, and I think it would’ve been better to just have unknown actors play the presidents. Because they are in it for such a short period of time, we don’t get the chance to see them slip into their real-life counterparts like in Frost/Nixon or Lincoln. We only get a chance to see the actors, and that’s really big flaw, seeing as how we are supposed to see them as the presidents.
It’s also worth noting that after a brief internet search, I found that very little of what happened in the movie actually happened. It’s pretty historically inaccurate. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem normally, except that the film they chose to make isn’t very interesting, and is too melodramatically heavy. The fact that the film isn’t accurate only adds to the flaws of the film. I understand that in true-life stories you have to change what happened to best suit to needs of the film. But they don’t do that here; they instead made a poor-man’s hybrid of Forrest Gump and The Help.
Still, putting aside that, there are some good things in the film. There are a few good scenes that pick the right tone, and I would have no trouble believing could or would happen. It’s occasionally interesting, and like I said, the acting is mostly phenomenal. I did like the scene where Cecil tried to get the black help in the White House to get paid the same as the white help. It wasn’t too in your face, and both the actors emote exactly how they should’ve.
However, despite some virtues, the film lacks any subtlety and ultimately leaves you exhausted instead of inspired. It suffers in comparison to the much better Civil Rights films of the past.